Bruce Jessen: The Torturer in the Pulpit

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As a newly appointed ecclesiastical leader in Spokane, Washington, Bruce Jessen would have the opportunity to baptize new converts. He would also be expected to interview them regularly to evaluate their understanding of the church's teachings and their fidelity to its precepts. Given Jessen's background, the possibility exists that he might use the baptismal font as a theater for "enhanced interrogation" of those who give him unsatisfactory answers.

Before becoming a Mormon Bishop — a position from which he may already have resigned – Bruce Jessen was a torturer in the employ of the CIA. Beginning in December 2001, he helped reverse-engineer the U.S. military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training in order to develop torture protocols used to "break" and "exploit" detainees.

Beginning in 2002, Jessen — working with a fellow military psychologist named James Mitchell — trained interrogators in the use of those techniques. Jessen also supervised, and performed, the torture ritual called "waterboarding," a form of controlled suffocation through simulated drowning that was treated as a capital war crime when used by Japanese interrogators against U.S. and allied POWs during World War II.

The approach devised and taught by Jessen was "based on coercive methods used by the Chinese Communist dictatorship to elicit false confessions from U.S. POWs during the Korean War," explains a 2009 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee. The objective was not to obtain sound intelligence, but rather to destroy the detainee's will.

This is very useful to interrogators ordered to provide "intelligence" that will ratify the desires of the ruling elite. One splendid example of this was the torture-wrought "confession" offered by Ib al-Shaykh al-Libi, who claimed to have information linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda. Al-Libi (who later died of "suicide" in a Libyan jail during that brief period when Khadafy was an "ally") actually knew nothing of the sort, but was understandably eager to give his interrogators what they sought in exchange for an end to the torture.

Ethiopian-born British citizen Binyam Mohamed, who was abducted by U.S. officials and imprisoned at a CIA "black site" in Morocco, was also ministered to by interrogators instructed in Jessen's doctrine, led by a sadist called "Marwan." After being freed following several years in the bowels of the American-run torture archipelago, Mohamed described how Jessen's disciples broke him:

"`Strip him,' shouted Marwan. They cut off my clothes with some kind of doctor's scalpel. I was naked. I tried to put on a brave face. But maybe I was going to be raped. Maybe they'd electrocute me, maybe castrate me. They took the scalpel to my right chest. It was only a small cut, maybe an inch. At first I just screamed…. I was just shocked…. Then they cut my left chest. This time I didn't want to scream because I knew it was coming."

Marwan, angered by the resolution displayed by the captive, ordered the fiend with the scalpel to "go ahead with the plan."

"One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts," Mohamed recounts. "He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute, watching my reaction. I was in agony, crying, trying desperately to suppress myself, but I was screaming."

This procedure was carried out dozens of times. One of Mohamed's captors taunted him, suggesting that he should be emasculated since "I would only breed terrorists."

The "scalpel treatment" was inflicted on Mohamed on a monthly basis, reports Stephen Grey in his book Ghost Plane. "It was carefully controlled, so the wounds would not be too deep and would not leave permanent marks. In the end, [Mohamed] told his guards: `I will sign anything, confess to anything.'"

To use Jessen's terminology, Binyam Mohamed had been successfully "exploited." For months his interrogators had demanded information about an American citizen named Jose Padilla, someone whom Mohamed had never met and whose name he had never heard. After months of being hung by his wrists, beaten with a leather strap, and having his skin flayed by experts, Mohamed finally provided the CIA's surrogates with the "evidence" the Bush administration demanded.

Padilla, a former gang-banger with no operational connections to al-Qaeda, was labeled an "unlawful enemy combatant" — the first U.S. citizen thus designated — and confined to a military brig without legal recourse for roughly four years. During that time, Padilla received the full Jessen Treatment – sensory deprivation, sleep disruption, stress positions, death threats, prolonged isolation in a medieval-quality cell. As noted in a lawsuit filed on Padilla's behalf, the purpose of this regimen was "to destroy Mr. Padilla’s ordinary emotional and cognitive functioning in order to extract from him potentially self-incriminating information."

Despite the Bush administration's insistence — buttressed by the "testimony" extorted from Mohamed — that Padilla was involved in a "dirty bomb" plot, he was never charged with that offense. In a Soviet-grade federal trial, Padilla was eventually convicted of conspiring to "support" terrorism abroad. The key evidence in that trial consisted of transcripts of innocuous conversations in which government "experts" claimed to find "coded language" regarding terrorist activities.

After Mohamed had signed a document implicating Padilla, he was sent to Guantanamo. During his flight on a CIA-chartered rendition plane, he was attended by an operative he described as "a white female with glasses." When she removed Mohamed's shirt, the CIA officer was horrified to see that most of his upper body was covered with scars carved out by the agency's scalpel-wielding subcontractors.

"When she saw the injuries I had, she gasped," Mohamed later recalled. "She said, my God, look at that. Then all her mates looked at what she was pointing at, and I could see the shock and horror on their faces."

The chief opposition to the torture program devised by Jessen and Mitchell came from their former colleagues in the military — including some who had been involved with them in teaching SERE courses in the 1980s. They were understandably concerned that the practice of torture would inspire retaliation against captured U.S. servicemen and incite future acts of terrorism against the U.S. With institutional support for their program collapsing, and public revulsion on the rise, Jessen and Mitchell requested from the CIA — and received — an "indemnity promise" guaranteeing them at least $5 million to pay any legal fees arising from criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit.

They needn't have worried. None of the U.S. officials responsible for institutionalizing torture has ever been prosecuted or punished in any way. That treatment is reserved for critics of the torture program. This includes former CIA counter-terrorism operative John Kiriakou, who recently entered a guilty plea on a single charge of revealing the identity of an intelligence operative. His supposed offense — for which he was originally charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, which provides for the death penalty — was to speak critically of the torture program and identify one of the officials involved in it.

Kiriakou, who is one of six officials being prosecuted by the Obama administration for "leaking" information about the government's crimes, accepted a plea bargain because he has five children. That fact, to use Jessen's terminology, made him "exploitable." Accordingly, while the architect of the torture program was given an opportunity to hold forth from a pulpit, a whistleblower will spend at least two and a half years in prison.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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